the UK government and authorities have been cracking down on the right to peaceful assembly, with senior government officials labelling environmental and racial justice movements as ‘criminals’. During this reporting period, the government introduced a policing bill which gives significantly more power to the police and threatens peaceful assembly. The kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard sparked protests over the lack of safety for women. A metropolitan police officer has been charged in connection with the murder. The disproportionate force used by police during a vigil to remember Everard led to a backlash against the government and police, in the context of attempts to increase police powers. Protests against the bill have been ongoing.
As reported previously on the Monitor, the UK government and authorities have been cracking down on the right to peaceful assembly, with senior government officials labelling environmental and racial justice movements as ‘criminals’. During this reporting period, the government introduced a policing bill which gives significantly more power to the police and threatens peaceful assembly. The kidnapping and murder of Sarah Everard sparked protests over the lack of safety for women. A metropolitan police officer has been charged in connection with the murder. The disproportionate force used by police during a vigil to remember Everard led to a backlash against the government and police, in the context of attempts to increase police powers.
Reclaim These Streets, a group of women that wanted to channel collective grief following the murder of Sarah Everard by a police officer, and to commemorate all women lost to violence, organised a short vigil on 13th March 2020 at Clapham Common in London.
Before planning the vigil, the group reached out to the Council and the Met Police in Lambeth to ensure that the event could take place “safely and legally”. After initially receiving a positive response, they later said that the vigil would be unlawful and that if activists continued they would face fines worth thousands of pounds and charges under the Serious Crimes Act. The group raised over 37,000 pounds in the event that police took action against protestors. Following this, the group legally challenged the police’s decision as unlawful. In a statement, the group said:
“This is a vigil for Sarah, also for all the women who feel unsafe, who go missing from our streets and face violence every day. By forcing us to cancel the Reclaim the Streets Vigil, the metropolitan police will be silencing thousands of women like us who want to honour Sarah's memory and stand up for our right to feel safe on our streets.”
On 12th March 2021, the high court ruled to leave the organisers and the police to decide on whether protests should go ahead, refusing to intervene in a legal battle between the organisers of vigils and the Metropolitan Police. However, during the hearing the police admitted that there was no blanket ban on protests and that they have discretion on how to respond to planned events. Consequently, Reclaim These Streets urged people not to attend gatherings on Clapham Common due to COVID-19 and legal consequences.
However, hundreds who showed up at Clapham Common on 13th March 2020 for the vigil were met with heavy handed policing (see also here). These events have led to calls for the resignation of police commissioner Cressida Dick, who defended the police’s response to a “really big crowd’. Reclaim These Streets released a statement the same evening, explaining how they were “deeply saddened and angered by the scenes of police officers physically manhandling women at a vigil against male violence”. They also stated that:
“The Metropolitan Police failed to work with us despite the High Court ruling yesterday that a vigil could potentially go ahead lawfully. In doing so, they created a risky and unsafe situation. It is their responsibility to protect public order, public health and the right to protest – they failed tonight on all accounts...This week of all weeks the police should have understood that women would need a place to mourn, reflect and show solidarity. Now is the time for the police and the government to recognise that the criminal justice system is failing women. Tonight, it has failed women again, in the most destructive way. We will keep fighting for women’s voices to be heard and to matter.”
The group also released a statement to the Police Commissioner, stating their disappointment in the failure of the police to consult protest organisers prior to releasing a public statement regarding the vigil. They also highlighted how they had “only ever sought to be constructive” and to work with the force “to ensure that the right to assemble is achieved lawfully and with all the appropriate and proportionate safety and policing measures in place”, reaffirming that the High Court ruling had made it clear that “the law does not prevent police from permitting and facilitating peaceful assembly”.
Government response to the police violence
Home Secretary Priti Patel explained that she had had “extensive discussions” with Met police regarding the vigil, and had asked the Met Police for a full report on what happened. Patel also said that the vigil had been “hijacked” by protesters. Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: “The police do have a very difficult job but there’s no question that the scenes that we saw were very distressing.”
On 19th March 2020, 62 MPs and peers supported a letter coordinated by Liberty and Big Brother Watch to the home secretary stating that allowing the police to criminalise people for protesting was “not acceptable and is arguably not lawful”. The highlighted that the right to protest in the UK has been threatened by:
Sam Grant, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Liberty UK, said:
“We must all be able to stand up to power and have our voices heard. In a healthy democracy, protest is a critical way we can fight for what we believe in. The Government’s current quasi-ban on protest is completely unacceptable...”
“Using short-term restrictions on protest to stifle dissent while they pass permanent ones is as absurd as it is authoritarian. Now is the time for us to come together to stand up to this aggressive and egregious use of power.”
On 30th March 2021 the government investigation commissioned by the Home Secretary into the events that unfolded at the Clapham vigil found that police “acted appropriately”.
#PoliceCrackdownBill calls for new restrictions on right to protest
On 9th March 2021, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill was announced as part of plans to “strengthen police powers to tackle non-violent protests that have a significant disruptive effect on the public or on access to Parliament”. The new law grants police greater powers to crack down on protests, including outlawing protests that are noisy or cause “serious annoyance”, single person protests and protests outside the UK parliament.
CSOs Liberty UK, Friends of the Earth UK and Bond UK told the CIVICUS Monitor that the bill makes the following concerning changes:
More than 150 organisations (including Extinction Rebellion, Liberty, Big Brother Watch and local organisations) warned ministers that the new 307-page Police, Crime and Sentencing bill is “an attack on some of the most fundamental rights of citizens”. They also argued that the bill was being rushed through parliament before people had “been able to fully understand its profound implications”. Extinction Rebellion UK described the bill as “a blatant erosion of democracy”, and Black Lives Matter UK said that it “effectively criminalises protestors” and that “it must be opposed”.
Netpol argued that police must protect and not restrict the right to protest. The organisation has launched a new “Charter for Freedom of Assembly Rights”, which calls on the government and the police to accept greater transparency and accountability for the way protests are policed. They demand that police respect existing international human rights standards – or explain why they have refused to do so. The charter has gathered over 200,000 signatures.
On 15th March 2021, prior to the parliament’s vote on the bill, police made arrests after hundreds of people, who had gathered to oppose the passage of the new policing bill and to highlight violence against women, marched through central London. Activists from several movements, including Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, Stop HS2, various anti-fascist groups and activists from the feminist group Sisters Uncut, involved in the organisation of the vigil for Sarah Everard, came together to support the right to protest and called for #KillltheBill,
On 16th March 2021, the bill passed its second reading in parliament- the first chance MPs get to vote on a proposed law – by 359 votes to 263. This was despite debates on controversial aspects of the bill, including giving significant powers to police, failure to protect the right to protest and the heavy 10-year sentence for destruction of statues/gardens, with Labour leader Keir Starmer calling on his MPs to vote against the bill.
The #PoliceCrackdownBill is a blatant erosion of democracy. Which is why we demand an upgrade to democracy, citizens assemblies. To #KillTheBill, we will not only have to bring down statues but may have to continue to protest until we bring down this government. #RightToProtest pic.twitter.com/K92AE881Y0— Extinction Rebellion UK 🌍 (@XRebellionUK) March 16, 2021
For the duration of lockdown, Priti Patel has been eroding our right to protest.— #BlackLivesMatterUK (@ukblm) March 14, 2021
Next week they want to pass the #PoliceCrackdownBill which effectively criminalises protestors.
It must be opposed. #KillTheBillhttps://t.co/EAHymvDSzF https://t.co/vzm7WgVNx5
In the following days there were protests in several cities across the UK, with people calling to #ReclaimtheStreets and #KilltheBill. In London, police arrested four legal observers from the Black Protest Legal Support (BPLS), an organisation led by Black and Brown lawyers to monitor the policing of protests, despite clearly identifying as ‘legal observers’. Two of the observers were taken into custody and detained into the early hours. All four were told to expect fines in the post. Liberty has threatened legal action against the Metropolitan Police on behalf of the four legal observers, arguing that their arrests at a recent protest were unlawful. It has given the police two weeks to respond and drop fines against the legal observers.
Police clashed with protestors in Bristol on 21st March 2021. Protesters have criticised the mainstream media narratives that described them as having ‘turned violent’ and condemned the police’s use of excessive force, including kettling, the use of batons, and dispersal techniques such as horse charges, as “violent in both intent and effect”. Protestors also reported that police drove directly into the crowds of protesters, after which police vehicles were set alight and vandalised. In a collective statement, several groups said:
“The stigmatisation of protesters is a tactic of division that we won’t stand for. It is a fearful response by a state that thrives on division and scarcity. While the police can use violence against people with impunity, protesters are condemned for ‘violent’ damage to property.... The police use violence to divide us, but we will not be divided. The conservative media attempts to paint a moral hierarchy, but we will not be forced apart. We know that this bill can be defeated, and we are coming together in a coalition of solidarity to do just that. We will not be silenced. We will kill the bill!”
Extinction Rebellion in Bristol reaffirmed their commitment to non-violence and the right to peaceful protest, stating that “The escalation of [the] peaceful protest demonstrates why it is essential that organised peaceful protest remains legal”.
On 26th March 2021, activists occupied a former police station in South London, close to where Sarah Everard was last seen, demanding that the restrictive bill be withdrawn.
“We the “serious annoyance” have occupied the former Cavendish Road Police Station located 200m away from where Sarah Everard was last seen. We demand the withdrawal of ‘The Police Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’; an end to male violence; defunding of police and a refunding of communities. We have shouted, we have marched and we now stand as a coalition to resist this authoritarian state.”
On 27th March 2021, several protesters were arrested after more than a thousand people gathered for the third #KilltheBill protest for that week in Bristol. Police were given orders to disperse the crowd for breaching “COVID-19 legislation”.
The accumulation of these events, coupled with the murder of 33-year-old Sarah Everard by a police officer, repeated crackdowns on protesters over the last year and targeted moves by Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has labelled protestors as “domestic extremists”, have catalysed a hostile political environment for protestors and civil society in which tensions are running high.
The bill will go to the Committee in the House of Commons. There appears to be a slowing down of the process, potentially due to public outrage - the outcome of the Committee must be presented by 24th June 2021.
Dozens of arrests at protest against COVID-19 lockdown in London
Anti-lockdown protestors were met with a heavy police presence on 20th March 2020. The protest began peacefully at 4pm but soon resulted in clashes between police and protesters, over 30 arrests and heavy-handed policing. By 7pm officers wearing riot gear arrived at Hyde Park urging people to go home. See and read more here.
Despite warnings by rights groups to repeal the Coronavirus Act emergency legislation, the UK government extended the Act for another six months on 26th March 2021.
Over the past few months government officials have openly criticised CSOs for being critical and speaking out.
In December 2020, the speaker of the House of Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg accused UNICEF of ‘playing politics’ after it launched a campaign to feed children in the UK. UNICEF committed to pledging £25,000 to a south London charity to supply breakfast boxes over the Christmas holidays. Rees-Mogg said that UNICEF was trying to gain “cheap political points” and called the campaign “a political stunt of the lowest order”.
Millionaire Jacob Rees-Mogg complains UNICEF are ‘playing politics’ by feeding vulnerable British children pic.twitter.com/YQJhbAj26r— Toby Earle (@TobyonTV) December 17, 2020
The Third Sector reports that during February 2021 charities were summoned to a meeting with the culture secretary in a move to “warn them off attempts to rewrite British history”. It was reported that over 25 charities were invited and were to be told "to defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down”. These comments are in relation to work that some charities have been doing on slavery and colonialism. While some charities chose to attend the meeting, others boycotted it. Jay Kennedy, head of policy and practice at the publishing and training charity the Directory of Social Change, said:
“The idea that a fact-based analysis of the central role of slavery and colonialism over the past 500 years of British history and economic development is somehow now being warped by 'ideology' or 'woke activists' is double-speak and historical malpractice.”
Following this the government set up a working group to determine guidelines for how heritage charities can talk about history.
In addition, on 15th February 2021 during a speech, Charity Commission chair Baroness Stowell warned CSOs to not be “captured” by politics. She said: “If Charity is to remain at the forefront of our national life it cannot afford to be captured by those who want to advance or defend their own view of the world to the exclusion of all others. Charities can adapt to the latest social and cultural trends but there is a real risk of generating unnecessary controversy and division by picking sides in a battle some have no wish to fight.”
One of my reporters has had to make her Twitter profile private today because a *government minister* tweeted out screenshots of a completely standard request for comment on a story, and accused her of spreading disinformation. Absolutely extraordinary.— Jess Brammar (@jessbrammar) January 29, 2021
Thank you to the many people in east Belfast who made me aware of this sinister graffiti today.— Patricia Devlin (@trishdevlin) February 12, 2021
I think it’s clear to everyone who and what is behind it, and why.
I will continue to report on the thugs and bullies terrorising their own communities.https://t.co/8zYYxAx6Gu
“Sports journalism has remained a difficult space for women journalists to enter due to prevalent sexist attitudes. To silence the few voices that are present there is despicable behaviour.”
To use parliamentary privilege to smear a journalist - knowing you can't be sued for defamation because you are saying it in parliament - is extremely troubling. We stand by Arj and his journalism. Produce your evidence, Jacob Rees-Mogg, or retract and set the record straight https://t.co/lYe3BefuC9— Jess Brammar (@jessbrammar) March 18, 2021
Thank you to everyone for the messages of support, sorry I can't reply to them all— Lizzie Dearden (@lizziedearden) March 19, 2021
The police have been very supportive and I and my partner are safe. And I'm not going to be intimidated out of doing my jobhttps://t.co/vedYU5fFZM
"Throughout this pandemic, reporters and photographers have continued doing their jobs as key workers, ensuring the public remains fully informed and documenting important events during an unprecedented time. It is wholly unacceptable that in carrying out this vital work reporters and photographers are being abused and threatened.”
"The policing of demonstrations and protests must ensure that journalists are able to do their job safely and without fear of attack, and that those who seek to curtail the right to report should be dealt with robustly.”
Our journalists were shoved and threatened by an officer while covering the police operation last night. An apology has now been issued.— The Bristol Cable (@TheBristolCable) March 24, 2021
Help us keep up this reporting. Join 2,400 others and become a member of the Bristol Cable today. https://t.co/AE8uf1ZD8T https://t.co/uc2jbdJGPR pic.twitter.com/21UZ7EKnSR
"When the officers grabbed me, I immediately told them that I was a member of the media. Despite being a journalist for 20 years, however, I have never had a press card."
Police accused Booth of being a protester and only released him after another photojournalist, who he was with at the time, confirmed this.
Proposed free speech law for universities
On 16th February 2021, the education secretary announced proposed legal measures to “strengthen free speech and academic freedom” at universities. The measures aim to tackle the “increasing number of cases of individuals being silenced”. However, the measures have been opposed by university unions.
The University and College Union (UCU) general secretary, Jo Grady, responded:
“It is extraordinary that in the midst of a global pandemic the government appears more interested in fighting phantom threats to free speech than taking action to contain the real and present danger which the virus poses to staff and students."
“In reality the biggest threats to academic freedom and free speech come not from staff and students, or from so-called ‘cancel culture’, but from ministers’ own attempts to police what can and cannot be said on campus, and a failure to get to grips with the endemic job insecurity and managerialist approaches which mean academics are less able to speak truth to power.”